Notorious Mexican Gang Leader In Custody

Mexican authorities this week arrested the last standing ringleader of the kidnapping gang "Los Rojos," or "The Reds." "Los Rojos" was one of the most notorious and prolific kidnapping organizations that have terrorized that have terrorized Mexicans from all walks of life.

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, can a video game help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS? U.S. and Kenyan health officials, who teamed up with Warner Brothers to produce the new game, certainly hope so. We'll tell you more in a few minutes.

But first, as our international briefing continues, to Mexico, where Mexican authorities say they finally apprehended the last of the ringleaders of Los Rojos or The Reds. It's a gang that has been blamed for many kidnappings across Mexico, including the high-profile case of 20-year-old Silvia Vargas(ph), the daughter of a former Mexican Cabinet official. There were billboards throughout Mexico City with her image, offering a reward for information. Her body turned up in 2008, more than a year after she disappeared.

Her disappearance was among those that have unsettled Mexicans of all backgrounds but especially the families of professionals and business executives. The question is: Will the apprehension of this gang leader do anything to stem the kidnapping epidemic? For answers, we called Fred Burton. He's the vice president of counterterrorism and security at STRATFOR. That's a company that offers security research and intelligence. Fred Burton, welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. FRED BURTON (Vice President of Counterterrorism, STRATFOR): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Just to give a sense of the scope of the kidnapping situation in Mexico, the government says there's something like just under 100 kidnappings a month. Do you think that is an accurate figure?

Mr. BURTON: No, I don't. The statistics are not very reliable at times. However, the one constant analysis that we have on this issue is there's no doubt that kidnappings are increasing in Mexico, and over the last five years or so, kidnappings have been up over 150 percent. We don't see this slowly down from a tactical perspective.

MARTIN: Is the kidnapping closely related to the drug trade, or is it its own thing?

Mr. BURTON: The drug runners, during their downtime, will actually carry out kidnappings for additional money, specifically with the Zetas, which is a narco-terrorist organization inside of Mexico.

Then you'll also have just your criminal abductors that are doing this for some quick money. The most prevalent MO are the express kidnappings, and that's where individuals are picked up very briefly, taken to an ATM, money is gotten out, and then they're released. But there's another phenomena that most people aren't looking at.

There's a significant number of migrants that are consistently abducted, and the numbers are staggering. For example, over the last six months, there's been in excess of 10,000 migrants that have been kidnapped in Mexico. And these are individuals coming up from Central and Latin America that have to transit through this controlled territory en route to the United States.

MARTIN: So you think that 100-kidnappings-a-month figure is just way too low.

Mr. BURTON: Absolutely. And there's another phenomena that's taking place. As you like at this from a U.S. national-security perspective, we also have intelligence gaps on the actual number of cross-border abductions. This is occurring more than people are reporting, when you start talking to police and law enforcement officials along the border.

So these are members of gangs such as the Zetas or the Texas Syndicate or the Mexican Mafia that come into the United States around the border, abduct an individual and take them back into Mexico and hold them for ransom.

MARTIN: The last time we spoke to you, it was about another high-profile case, also very troubling, particularly to Americans. It was about the kidnapping of Felix Batista. He's an American who was working in Mexico as a security consultant. He had a reputation as a negotiator in these types of cases. Do we know anything more about what has happened to him?

Mr. BURTON: His abduction sent shockwaves through the multinational community because this is the type of individual that's very skilled and very professional, that's brought in to actually negotiate a kidnap victim out of captivity. So when the cartels start kidnapping people like this, it leads one to believe that no one is safe.

The most prevalent suspect that has surfaced is the Zeta leader Lazcano Lazcano, and there's been various reports that Lazcano wanted to take Mr. Batista as a signal to law enforcement that the Zetas control this area, and you better not try to intrude on our turf.

MARTIN: I don't know any other way to ask this. Do you think it is possible that Mr. Batista is still alive?

Mr. BURTON: The longer that there's no signs of what is called proof of life in the business, it doesn't look very good.

MARTIN: What's the point of keeping everybody in limbo in this way?

Mr. BURTON: Well, you have the phenomenon with an individual like Lazcano, who's already a wanted man. He has a tremendous amount of pressure on him already. I'm sure it's widely known amongst his rivals that he was the individual that took this high profile individual. It's just another example of the brutality and the insurgent kind of activities that we've been seeing crop up by these gangs. And it's very, very troubling to me from a counterterrorism perspective because it shows you that Calderon's government is still pushing a boulder up a hill.

MARTIN: As we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, who believed to be the last remaining ringleader of Los Rojos has been apprehended by Mexican authorities. That happened within the last couple of days. Is that an important development?

Mr. BURTON: What we have found historically, at least over the last two to three years in Mexico, is that another individual will just step up into the plate and take that position. There is no corner of the country that's not untouched by cartel violence, from the tourist trade to Mexico City, from Juarez all the way across the border, there doesn't appear to be any end in sight any time soon.

MARTIN: Is there any sign that the Mexican government is making any headway?

Mr. BURTON: I'm optimistic that we can take steps in a positive direction from a law enforcement perspective, as our economic aid packages start to kick in with some more training and specifically equipment where we're in a better position to work with the Mexican government. However, there's simply not enough federal police officers to do the job and this is a resource-driven problem. If you don't have enough resources to hold the terrain after you move in the military and the cartel is just backfill, I'm afraid that this is just going to continue for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: Fred Burton is the vice president of counterterrorism and security at STRATFOR. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Austin, Texas. Mr. Burton, thank you.

Mr. BURTON: Thank you for having me.

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